The AFI DOCS Interview: HAVEABABY Director Amanda Micheli
HAVEABABY focuses on a group of aspiring parents who enter a controversial video contest held by a Las Vegas fertility clinic. The winners receive a free round of in vitro fertilization, and given the steep costs of treatment, many believe this unconventional competition may be their only chance at parenthood. Provocative and engaging, director Amanda Micheli’s film explores the complexities of the billion-dollar fertility industry as well as the emotional and financial toll these diverse couples face.
AFI spoke to director Micheli ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
In high school, I was the photo-editor of our school newspaper, and I loved the freedom the camera gave me; I could drift anywhere from the varsity locker-room to the teacher’s lounge and didn’t have to really “fit in” anywhere. So I was a budding photojournalist and I also loved movies, so documentary film was a perfect hybrid. In college, I made an hour-long documentary for my undergraduate thesis called JUST FOR THE RIDE. I never thought that anyone but my teachers and my family would ever see that film, but it got some attention, and was later bought by POV. So I suppose for me, what started out as a coping mechanism for an awkward but curious teenager ended up translating into a meaningful career.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I came to this story through my own experience of infertility after my husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I was shocked by my ignorance of my own fertility, and bowled over by the costs of treatment — and the powerful marketing that goes along with it, largely because it is typically not covered by health insurance.
How did you find the subjects in your film?
After I spent my life savings on my first round of in vitro fertilization (IVF), I was researching financing options for a second round, and came across an article about clinics that sponsor IVF contests. This struck me as a perfectly absurd distillation of the world of reproductive medicine I found myself in, and I was amazed by the extreme lengths to which some couples will go to seek this treatment. I knew the contest would be a provocative way into this subject matter, which is so often kept quiet in our culture. As for the specific subjects, there were 10 finalists in the contest; we filmed with seven of them, and eventually had to narrow down to three — which was really hard because they all had very compelling and unique stories.
What was your biggest challenge in making HAVEABABY?
It is very challenging to plan the timing of film shoots around women’s reproductive cycles, so the unpredictable nature of procreation made this tough to plan. And, of course, like many independent filmmakers, we faced a real uphill battle finding financing for the film, even from organizations that focused on women’s health. I think that may speak to the common judgment that — at worst — IVF is seen as a luxury, or perhaps even a selfish path, or at best, that this is not a really “serious” medical condition that merits more attention and discussion. To be honest, I leaned toward some of these views myself before I experienced infertility firsthand, so I understand where that comes from. I hope this film will raise more awareness about this often misunderstood condition as a part of the ever-evolving discussion around reproductive choice.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
I want people walking out of the theater to not to take their fertility for granted, to realize that upwards of one in six couples worldwide are faced with an infertility diagnosis, and to rethink any preconceived notions they might have about these people and the challenges they face. There is a pervasive stereotype of an IVF patient as a wealthy career woman who waited too long to have children, but there are millions of Americans from all social strata who struggle with infertility — both emotionally and financially — often in isolation. Well-meaning friends and family tend to offer up solutions, the most common of which is “Why don’t you just adopt?” Adoption is a great option for family building, but it is not a “cure” for infertility, and as the film shows, family planning in this situation is a highly personal and emotional territory, with no guarantees no matter what path you choose. Couples with infertility have a medical diagnosis that involves heartbreak and loss, for which there is no easy fix, and the cost of treatment creates a huge divide between the “haves” and “have nots.”
Why is Washington, DC, a valuable location to screen your film?
On the heels of our world premiere during Infertility Awareness Week, we are hoping to continue a national conversation about infertility, and where better to do that than the nation’s capital? Our official non-profit partner is RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, which is based in the DC area. RESOLVE provides a community for infertile women and men, connecting them with support networks and empowering them to find resolution, whether it be medical treatment, adoption, or childlessness — and promises to protect legal access to all family building options. Part of that work involves advocacy and outreach to our representatives in the Capitol and we are excited to invite them to our screenings.
HAVEABABY plays AFI DOCS on Fri, Jun 24, 6:30 p.m., and Sat, June 25, 11:30 a.m. Buy tickets here.